The Atlantic recently published a thorough exposé on the changing definition of adulthood, and how we define it today. The author spoke with developmental psychologists and cited a survey of anecdotes to conclude that the once-definable life stage is increasingly nebulous -- some report that it begins as soon as financial independence is reached, and others not until raising a child.
To account for the huge range of events and states of mind now associated with growing up, some psychologists have crafted a new label for that ever-awing period that exists between heading off to college and nesting comfortably in a place that’ll likely remain unchanged for decades: “emerging adulthood.”
According to The Atlantic, “While [...] adolescence clearly ends at 18, when people typically leave high school and their parents’ homes, and are legally recognized as adults, one leaves emerging adulthood... whenever one is ready.”
Whenever one is ready. That adulthood has necessarily become less about checking off certain life markers -- a house, a spouse and a gaggle of kids -- and more about an internal state of feeling responsible for one’s own choices, means defining oneself as grown-up can feel murky.
One anonymous reader noted that as a 56-year-old married woman with a career and no children, she would describe herself as an adult. But, the status is less a permanent identity marker than a state achievable when necessary. She likens being grown-up to a fish “glittering in water,” a slippery thing she can snag in moments when maturity is needed.
“You know it’s swimming around there and you can reach out and maybe touch it, but to catch it would destroy everything,” she writes. “And the moments when you do catch it -- when you have to attend a brother-in-law’s funeral or euthanize a paralyzed pet -- you grasp it and you do it fully and well but you long to toss it back in the pond, blast David Bowie, and sit on the grass contentedly, watching adulthood glint in the sunlight.”
It may be useful, then, to offer a new narrative about growing up. It’s a privileged one, to be sure -- not everyone has the luxury of keeping responsibility on a shelf, and socioeconomic factors certainly influence when individuals fully enter adulthood. But for those eschewing marriage, parenthood, home ownership, and other choices that promote stability rather than spontaneity, maturity can be seen as a skill rather than a lifestyle, a way of treating oneself and others rather than an adherence to a monolithic template.
If many of us could be categorized as emerging adults -- people picking and choosing which responsibilities suit our personal beliefs -- could that help explain why our bookshelves are as likely to house Paper Towns as they are Leaves of Grass? The trend of adults reading Young Adult literature has been linked to a sort of mass juvenilization, but when we view YA readers as people dipping their toes back into youthful naivety, a clearer picture emerges.
Although YA books often circumvent the grittier parts of life -- “gratuitous” sex and drugs are generally omitted -- the experience of reading them can be as squarely adult as blowing the dust off a beloved Bowie record. To reenter a carefree state of mind from the vantage point of a more responsible human is a means of escaping said responsibilities, but it's also a means of reflecting, and considering who we were, who we thought we were, who we wanted to be, and, finally, who we’ve become.
If emerging adulthood is about maintaining a state of flux and freedom while slowly acquiring the responsibilities that matter to us, looking back on our lives’ trajectories can be a meditative act.
This could begin to explain what author Kate Axelrod described on Literary Hub as “the ever-blurring lines across literary genres.” Although her book, The Law of Loving Others, is about a college student coping with her mother’s mental illness, publishers insisted on packaging it as YA due to the protagonist’s age. Disappointed, Axelrod wrote, “To me, all YA suggested was that I had failed, in some critical way, to captivate an adult audience.”
Of course, this is inaccurate. A 2012 survey showed that over half of YA readers are adults (or, perhaps, emerging adults). The survey doesn’t include data on whether those readers are picking up titles more suited to their age group in addition to The Fault in Our Stars, and if they aren’t, the juvenilization complaint may be founded. But I’m willing to guess that these readers’ shelves are diverse and that, like their real-life responsibilities, their literary habits waffle between serious, thoughtful, nostalgic, and purely fun.
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